Hope in the Shadows of War by Thomas Paul Reilly

Thomas Paul Reilly is an award-winning columnist and the author of many books. He often advocates for causes important to military veterans.

His latest novel, Hope in the Shadows of War (Koehler Books, 278 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle), has a few short scenes that take place in Vietnam during the war, but primarily the book deals with the life of Vietnam War veteran Timothy Patrick O’Rourke who is struggling in 1973 America to find his way after a tough tour of combat duty.

He has a seriously damaged leg that has left him with a pronounced limp. This leaves Timothy open to be called “gimp” and “Chester” after the limping Gunsmoke character.

Much of the book takes place prior to Christmas. Timothy works at a Christmas tree stand where he struggles to do the heavy lifting. He does his part, but little slack is cut for him. Some attempt is made to make Timothy an “everyveteran” struggling with “alienation, hyper-vigilance, substance abuse, relationship problems, guilt, flashbacks, nightmares, and depression.”

Timothy is not a whiner, but is reluctant to share his troubles with his girlfriend Cheryl, who wants him to do so. Manliness issues prevent Timothy from coming clean with her about his money problems and other related issues.

People at the VA seem often to drag their feet about helping veterans, and people in general seem to not want to hire anyone who served in the Vietnam War. Timothy gets put on notice at the hospital where he works part time for seeming to be interested in talking with union organizers, which adds to the stress he has to deal with on a daily basis.

Little is made of Timothy’s military experience as a helicopter pilot, but much is made of his return to civilian life being marred by indifference or hostility on the part of former friends. Timothy supports his mother with a hodgepodge of part-time jobs, and fights to pursue his dream of getting a college degree.

Timothy does have a lot of support from friends and from his incredibly loyal girlfriend, and some luck which comes his way. I was glad that all his luck was not bad, because I was rooting for him as most readers will find themselves doing.

I recommend this novel highly.

The author’s website is tomreillyblog.com

—David Willson

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The Phantom Vietnam War by David R. “Buff” Honodel

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To his surprise, F-4 Phantom jock Captain David R. “Buff” Honodel fought his share of the Vietnam War entirely in Laos during his 1969-70 tour of duty. He flew with the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron from Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, which provided air power against North Vietnamese along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and on the Plain of Jars.

Honodel—who died in February this year before the publication of this book—had prepared “to fight in Vietnam,” he wrote, “not some ancillary backwater skirmish in a primitive, jungle covered wilderness.” Mainly, the 555th crews killed trucks.

Furthermore, Honodel quickly realized that combat missions vastly differed from what he had expected, even though he ranked himself as “the world’s greatest fighter pilot.” Mostly, he had to relearn maneuvers he believed he had mastered because controlling a heavyweight, bomb-laden Phantom was like flying an entirely different aircraft.

Honodel related his experiences in these operations with a sometimes puzzled, but always eager, attitude in The Phantom Vietnam War: An F-4 Pilot’s Combat Over Laos (University of North Texas Press, 330 pp. $29.95, hardcover and Kindle). As a young man, he sought and found excitement, drama, and satisfaction amid the chaos of enemy gunfire and Air Force leadership.

The book thoroughly walks the reader through preparing for and flying fighter-bomber missions against targets seriously defended by antiaircraft weapons. Of Honodel’s 137 combat missions, 53 were as a Night Owl, which taught him a lot about himself. “When I crossed the Fence that first night,” he wrote, “I had no idea that I entered a new war, an environment that brought new terror.”

Night Owls flew in absolute blackness, or as Honodel put it: “About the only thing darker would be the inside of a coffin.” Lessons he learned on both night and day missions fill the book, and their details should delight flying enthusiasts as well as readers unfamiliar with military matters.

Self-criticism overrode much of his airmanship because no matter how well he performed, he still wanted to do better. At times, he viewed perfection as unattainable. Yet he recalled a foolhardy shootout and destruction of an antiaircraft gun and its crew that cleared the way for a successful helicopter rescue of a downed flyer and called the feat “the proudest day of my life.”

Often, Buff Honodel and his squadron mates were dissatisfied with the conduct of the war for reasons such as deaths and disappearances of fellow crewmen; too many tactical restrictions; inappropriate targeting; and illogical expectations from higher headquarters. Their criticism did not diminish their level of dedication to the task, however.

To deepen readers’ understanding of flying the F-4, Honodel provided fourteen pages of images with explanations of the interior of the aircraft’s cockpit, along with a crash course on ejection procedures. He also included twenty-four pages of photographs of the men and weapons discussed throughout the book.

Honodel returned to the United States in mid-1970 to fly the F-4 at Holloman Air Force Base. In 1972, he got to fight in South Vietnam when his squadron unexpectedly deployed to Southeast Asia to counter the North Vietnamese Army’s Easter Offensive. He targeted infantry during forty-some missions, which he mentioned only briefly in this book.

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Buff Honodel

The Phantom Vietnam War closes with Honodel’s grim but reasonable conclusions regarding the war’s significance. The men with whom he flew are his heroes, especially those killed or missing in action. He appreciated what they all accomplished more than why they did it.

Honodel admitted to writing The Phantom Vietnam War exclusively from memory. At times, the book has a novelistic tone because he created dialogue and recreated radio transmissions. A few of his generalizations could have been better supported. None of this, however, detracts from the overall impact of his feelings.

Following more than four decades of consideration, they still were fresh and sincere and comprise the foundation for his memoir.

—Henry Zeybel

On Blood Road by Steve Watkins

Steve Watkins is a former professor of journalism, creative writing, and Vietnam War literature, and the author the Ghosts of War series, which includes Lost at Khe Sanh and AWOL in North Africa.

His new YA novel, On Blood Road (Scholastic, 288 pp., $17.99, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle) is one of the best books of any sort that I’ve read dealing with the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the “Blood Road” of the title of this book.

Watkins has created a believable sixteen-year-old character named Taylor Sorenson who manages to get himself captured in South Vietnam during the war, made a prisoner of the VC, and marched toward the Hanoi Hilton. He does not make it there, but has many adventures in transit. Just about every bad thing that can happen to a person in that situation happens to the young man, including losing a leg.

Taylor is the son of one of the architects of the American War in Vietnam. He flies to Saigon with his mother to spend time with his father who is busy running the war. When the NVA find out, they see him as a potential bargaining chip in negotiations.

The author presents the reader with most of the usual things that a Vietnam War infantry novel would deal with. That includes John Wayne, Agent Orange, napalm, and Puff the Magic Dragon gunships. Taylor’s main captor is a young VC who speaks French, which Taylor is fluent in, so there is no need for them to speak Vietnamese.

The book is very poetically written, perhaps a bit more poetical that a typical sixteen year old would write, but Taylor is not a typical teenager in any way. He is against the war when he arrives in Vietnam, but that is no advantage to him. The publisher tells us that death “waits around every bend,” and that is certainly true in this book.

Watkins & daughters

On Blood Road is aimed at the teen-aged reader, but I found it very readable and informative and doubt that any teenager would struggle to read it. Adult readers would also find the book well worth reading.

I am glad that I got a chance to read this superb book and highly recommend it to young and old.

—David Willson

Time in the Barrel by James P. Coan

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During the Vietnam War, the Marine Corps combat base at Con Thien sat three clicks south of the demilitarized zone, always on alert for an incursion by the North Vietnamese Army into South Vietnam. In September 1967, the NVA began an intense bombardment of the Marines in Con Thien that lasted for forty days.

James R. Coan, a Marine lieutenant, led a Third Battalion/Third Division platoon of M-48A3 Patton medium tanks defending the base, his first combat command. He recalls the action from those days in Time in the Barrel: A Marine’s Account of the Battle for Con Thien (University of Alabama Press, 256 pp. $34.95, hardcover and e book).

While in-country, Coan kept a diary that he used to help expand his recollections in the book. He includes a copy of the diary in an appendix. For background, he presents a brief but highly informative history of I Corps prior to his arrival. Six pages of photographs enhance the memoir.

Coan describes Con Thien as a “three-pronged hill mass” and “the finest natural outpost along the entire lengths of the DMZ.” From its high ground, an observer had an unlimited field of view in all directions. On the other hand, the base also stood out as a perfect target.

Hidden within the densely vegetated DMZ, 20,000 NVA troops awaited orders to assault the base, he says. Meanwhile, enemy artillery, mortar, and rocket crews bombarded the base around the clock, once firing more than a thousand rounds in a day. Line of sight sniping with 57-mm recoilless rifles supplemented the NVA daylight firepower.

The situation produced a classic siege that Coan describes in detail. Fear of death—the “danger of enemy shells dropping out of the sky”—was the primary source of apprehension, he says. Every day, Marines died and were wounded. Unpredictable bombardments and sapper attacks; lack of food, water, and military supplies due to road cuts; monsoonal rains and mud; and rat infestation heightened the men’s anguish.

Coan—the author of Con Thien: The Hill of Angels, a 2007 book on the same subject—labels the fire base a “hell hole.” Based on what I saw around the time Coan was there, his description applied to all of northern I Corps. Nights were pitch black and days dimly lit. From I Corps, our C-130 crew carried away the dead in body bags on stretchers.

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In January 1968, the NVA shifted its strategy to besieging Khe Sanh.

Beyond his account of Con Thien, Coan wedges in non-combat material. His memories of screw-ups during high school and college years and the rigorous demands of Officer Candidate School interrupt the drama of the story.

Nevertheless, Time in the Barrel offers a worthwhile perspective of what, at the time, made headline news in America. The book unflinchingly illustrates humans’ ability to cope with the unbearable as a function of duty.

—Henry Zeybel

Ride a Twisted Mind Home by J. Dixon Neuman

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The pseudonymous J. Dixon Neuman is a  U.S. Navy veteran who was born and raised in the Allegany Mountains and served in the Vietnam War with Swift Boats and a Navy Support Activity.  The events his novel, Ride a Twisted Mind Home (Xlibris, 414 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $23.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), he tells us, are ripped from the pages of his life.

The main character, Jake Brewer, is modeled on the author. He is of Christian faith, which helped him to survive two brutal tours of duty in the Vietnam War. Early in the story, his marriage is rocky, but gradually gathers strength. Jake battles with PTSD and recovers enough to complete his military career.

The other primary protagonist is a member of the Slater Family, a group of primarily career criminals who learn stern lessons about life in prison. The Slaters are  “a family of vengeful troublemakers. These longtime residents of Sterling County are headed to war.” And that is where they end up. Prison, we find out, is not be the best preparation for military service.

The writing tends to be a bit overemotional. Early in the novel—actually, in the second sentence—Newman writes: “Gravity sucks them into a black hole of disastrous consequences.” That is hard to imagine. But we don’t have to imagine it, as the next few pages describe said black hole in great detail.

There are no Vietnam War battle scenes in the book. The war is mentioned, but only occasionally.  For example: there is “a warped half-crazed Vietnam vet with a chip on his shoulder,” and Dustoff pilots are referred to in passing.  This novel does include many mentions of “assault, rapes, arson, stalking and ongoing destruction,” but only in a peacetime environment. PTSD and trips to the VA are also mentioned in passing.

Many disgusting references are in this novel, enough for it to be characterized as more than occasionally disgusting in tone. I warn readers that this novel is not for the faint of heart—or the easily revolted.

I found myself resenting having to read this book for review. Rarely do I feel that strongly negative about a review novel—almost never, in fact.

The excessively vernacular writing in this book also made it a struggle to read. I would not describe myself as faint of heart, but perhaps in my old age I am becoming more easily offended when confronted with descriptions of individuals whose bodies and clothes stink or are rotting off their bodies.

When I worked decades ago as a welfare worker, I encountered such people from time to time and was able to deal with them with compassion, but this novel’s characters tested my patience—and my compassion.

—David Willson

Uncommon Valor by Stephen L. Moore

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Uncommon Valor: The Recon Company That Earned Five Medals of Honor and Included America’s Most Decorated Green Beret (Naval Institute Press, 422 pp.; $23.14 Hard, $21.96 Kindle) is a Vietnam War history book for the ages.

More bluntly put: The book is a helluva good war story. In this recon world things went right about half the time. Sometimes a well-conceived plan would fail and people died. Sometimes an audacious plan would work like a charm. That world was no reasonable place to go, but it was exactly where young, fit, tough guys wanted to be.

Stephen L. Moore, the book’s author, really has his stuff together. Readers will find interesting stories of combat or intrigue on page after page. He assembled this history based on interviews with men who were on the scene, along with citations for awards, official reports, archival material, newspaper and magazine articles, memoirs, secondary sources, and personal records. Moore has written seventeen other history books about World War II and Texas.

Uncommon Valor portrays the exploits of a small collection of American men from Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Air Force personnel, and CIA field agents in the Vietnam War supplemented by indigenous people. They all secretly operated behind enemy lines in Laos and Cambodia.

Code-named the Studies and Observations Group (SOG) and stationed at Forward Operating Base No. 2 (FOB-2) near Kontum in the Central Highlands, SOG reported directly to the Joint Chiefs and the White House. The main mission was to disrupt North Vietnamese operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They also took part in downed pilot and POW rescue missions.

The book recreates the history of FOB-2 beginning with its original thirty-three Green Berets. Because a significant amount of paperwork was destroyed to maintain secrecy, Moore centers his account on the activities of five Medal of Honor and eight Distinguished Service Cross recipients whose actions were thoroughly documented.

Moore bestows the greatest recognition on SFC Robert L. Howard, one of America’s most decorated warriors. Howard served in the Army for thirty-six years and retired as a colonel. His exploits, along with similar actions performed by other men from FOB-2, defy logic and the odds. As Moore tells the story, every man from FOB-2 was a hero.

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Stephen Moore

The SOG program demanded the most competent warriors available, and fortunately those who were best qualified volunteered for the task. Photographs, a glossary of terms, notes, bibliography, a roster of SOG troops at FOB-2, and an index round out the book’s structure.

I was only vaguely aware of SOG before reading Uncommon Valor and found it highly informative. I believe even those familiar with SOG might be enlightened by the insights provided by Moore’s nearly one hundred interviewees.

The author’s website is stephenlmoore.com

—Henry Zeybel

Rat Six by Jack Flowers

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Clifford Price, the hero of Jack Flowers’ novel Rat Six (Page Publishing, 452 pp. $36.95, hardcover; $22.95, paper; $9.99 Kindle), like hundreds of thousands of other young Baby Boomers, was drafted into the U. S. Army and served in the Vietnam War. His grandfathers had served in the First World War and his father in World War II.

After being selected for OCS, Price served in the Army Corps of Engineers. He arrived in Vietnam in 1968. For a few months he commanded a platoon of bridge builders, but then volunteered to lead the 1st Infantry Division Tunnel Rats, one of the most dangerous jobs in the war.

In his new job Price was eligible for the Combat Infantryman Badge, a goal of sorts for him.  His mindset was antiwar, but as a tunnel rat that attitude was not one that would enable him to survive. Price and his fellow tunnel rates descended into tunnels armed only with a flashlight and a pistol and their training in how to ferret out the enemy below.

The tunnel rats navigated the tunnels, seeking intelligence, and then would destroy the tunnels and any food and other materiel stored there. The novel well communicates the terror that the tunnel rats felt when they went under ground and pursued the enemy in his own very alien habitat.

In the novel, our hero must deal with a soldier who has made this pursuit of the enemy in the tunnels his domain—a man called Batman. His actual name is Bateman and he had been in Vietnam for several tours, making a career of being a tunnel rat.

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Jack Flowers

Sgt. Bateman is a scary guy who nobody dared mess with, but Price has to mess with him when put in charge of the tunnel rat team. Most of the drama and conflict in this novel has its source in the battle between Price and Batman, who had seized control of the tunnel rat team through the force of his personality and his success in killing the enemy.

This novel held my attention, and I recommend it to anyone who has interest in the underground war in Vietnam between our tunnel rats and the entrenched VC who were totally at home in the dank, dark recesses of Vietnam’s vast tunnel complexes.

The author’s website is ratsix.com

—David Willson